Thursday 17 October 2013

What has nature ever done for us?

This is the title of a book by Tony Juniper which sets out to show just how vital nature is to us in all sorts of critical ways.  This book should be read by everyone, especially by decision-makers and those in any sort of position of power.  It is well-articulated and readable, and presents an unarguable case for what so many people seem to have forgotten – the indispensable value of nature.

Nature is of intrinsic value and there are moral, ethical and spiritual reasons to conserve it. Therefore nature does not need justifying in terms of its utilitarian value to us.  Nevertheless, there are also extremely strong, informed, self-interest reasons for maintaining a healthy environment.  We need nature, human life would be impossible without it.

The book is packed with stories that give a clue about just how much we rely on nature, often broken down into harsh economic terms. These values are often not realised or accounted for in traditional economic terms, but they are nevertheless very real and an attempt to ignore them as “externalities” is simply false accounting.  Here are just a few examples from the book: 
  • In Britain we have 10 billion tonnes of carbon is stored in our soils – that is more than stored in all the trees in Europe.  Peat soil loss in Eastern England, however, is emitting about 6 million tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere every year.  So looking after our soils is vital in terms of climate change, let alone all the other benefits they bring.
  • Global forests take up about one third of the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel combustion, whereas deforestation causes about a quarter of the climate changing emissions per year.  So clearing trees increases emissions and reduces carbon absorption – a double whammy.  If we halved the rate of global deforestation then the carbon captured would be worth $3.7 trillion by 2030.
  • Nitrogen pollution has caused a 10% loss of plant diversity over much of Europe, plus dead zones in the Baltic and Adriatic seas.  The cost of nitrogen pollution is greater than the cost of the bailout of the Greek economy in 2011, and is probably about double the economic value of food production achieved by nitrogen fertilisers.
  • Nature is also at the centre of innovation.  27% of the heads of global companies say loss of natural diversity could cut growth in their business.  25 to 50% of the pharmaceutical market is based on natural genetic diversity. 
  • Pollination is a vital element in a healthy environment and in food production.  About 90% of flowering plant species rely on animal pollination and two thirds of global crops rely on pollination, worth nearly $200 billion per year. In parts of China 40,000 people have to be employed to hand-pollinate crops because pollinating insects have been wiped out by insecticides. 
  • A body of research is building up to show significant benefits from providing boxes for owls and tits (they eat mice and caterpillars respectively), ponds for frogs and toads, and cover for song thrushes (they eat snails) and flowers to attract beneficial insects.  These generally unmeasured impacts have a huge beneficial effect on crop production.
  • In Scotland, over-grazing by wild deer due to lack of top predators (bears and wolves) results in a lack of forest regeneration and soils now have a reduced organic content so allowing lower carbon storage in the ecosystem.  Whereas the polar bear is a symbol of damage from climate change maybe the brown bear should be a mascot for part of the solution.
  • Healthy natural systems may also be having a fundamental and beneficial effect on weather.  For clouds to form water vapour needs nuclei to condense around, however dust and salt spray is not enough to account for actual cloud formation.  It turns out that cloud formation is aided by micro-organisms in sea that emit chemicals that seed clouds.  Further inland, temperate and tropical forests then also seed clouds effectively recycling water further inside continents.  This keeps continent interiors wetter than if forests were not there.
  • The sea is the main ecological engine driving the earth’s environment, a point that is generally ignored.  50% of our oxygen is produced by the sea and 99% of planetary living space taken up by the sea. Micro-organisms in the sea lock up carbon in their calcium carbonate shells to make chalk. This results in the long term sequestration of carbon out of the atmosphere.  However, 30% of the carbon dioxide produced since the industrial revolution has been taken up by the sea, increasing sea acidity causing “the other carbon dioxide problem”.  Last time this form of acidification happened in the sea was about 55 million years ago, and the effect was spread over thousands of years, not just 200.
  • Natural systems also provide an insurance policy.  For instance just 1 sq km of mangrove swamp, which grows around coasts, can be worth over $200,000 in terms of flood protection.  In Belize the generally uncalculated value of mangrove forest is worth about 25% of the country’s GDP.
  • A healthy natural environment is very beneficial in terms of physical and mental well-being.  The speed of recovery in hospitals is faster when patients can see greenery and people living near greenspace rated their health as better than those who didn't, the greatest impact was on lower income groups. There is lower blood pressure in dental patients, fewer reports of ill health in prisoners, increased self-discipline in inner-city girls and reduced mortality in elderly people with more exposure to nature. 
  • Studies have shown positive links between species diversity and psychological benefit.  Diverse habitats reflect improvements in personal identity, plant diversity was linked to an ability to reflect and bird diversity linked to emotional attachment.  Managing urban greenspaces to create habitat mosaics and enhance wildlife variety will enhance psychological benefit.

The book ends by exposing flaws in our economic system.  We simply don’t count these things so imagine they are not there (that is like building up a huge debt but imagining it isn't there because you haven’t measured it!).  A basic misunderstanding in our economic system treats nature as a set of flows, or dividends, rather than as capital.  Hence natural capital is liquidated to make profits. This is perceived as using dividends, whereas in fact it should be viewed as asset-stripping.

By presenting a large number of well-researched real-world examples, this book puts life into the discussions that are taking place in the National Ecosystem Assessment, the Natural Capital Committee, the Ecosystem Markets Task Force and the international project ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’. It is extremely timely and I encourage everyone to read it.

To conclude I would just like to correct Bill Clinton’s well-known phrase – “It’s the economy, stupid”.  Clearly this should now read “It’s the ecology, stupid”.